Monday 27 June 2011

Short stories and our modern lifestyle

"The short story form is better suited to the demands of modern life than the novel" wrote Simon Prosser, Publishing Director of Hamish Hamilton.

I used to think so too, but over the years I've changed my mind. Yes, there are sites where you can download stories but printed novels are easier to dip into. As Lorrie Moore wrote "that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can't read stories that way."

Rather than read before I sleep I sometimes listen to things like the New Yorker stories (that include a commentary) or PRI selected shorts but I have to concentrate on them. I don't listen to them while driving in the way I'd listen to downloaded music.

I'm told that sites like Shortfire press are becoming more popular, offering e-shortstories in various formats (mobi, epub, pdf) for 49p or 99p. Random House plan to set up something similar in autumn 2011. This is a facility I'm likely to use, but I don't think they'll catch on until the short story widens its appeal. If anything, short stories are becoming harder to read

  • unlike the novel, the short story is "invariably literary." (Joyce Carol Oates)
  • the "well-written short story is not suited to the sound bite culture: it's too dense; its effects are too complex for easy digestion." (William Boyd)
  • "the commercial slick story has largely died out, the stories we are left with are almost always all serious art." (Lorrie Moore)

If this is the case, what went wrong? In a recent essay, Sarah Whitehead blames the golden age of the magazine era, when "The Strand" sold over half a million copies a month.

  • "The unprecedented and unrepeated growth of the magazine industry, which underpinned the growth and popularity of the short story genre, was the catalyst, if not the source of twentieth-century critical dismissal of the form."
  • "The magazine story has imbued the short story genre as a whole with the value of the disposable, the appeal of the marginalized and the inexorable link between literature and consumer culture."

After the bubble burst, only literary and genre stories survived. Is Flash Fiction the answer? I used to think so, though in another recent essay Holly Howitt-Dring says that "Because [Flash] could be viewed as stories working solely by implication, I feel that they have been mistrusted and sidelined in literature".

Is the short story going up or down? Do you listen to MP3 story stories or Flash? Are e-books the answer?

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Poem drafts

"Smiths Knoll"

I recently send a poem to "Smiths Knoll". The editors replied saying that "We ... had a couple of doubts". I could have addressed those doubts by tweaking a couple of lines. Of the 18 lines I ended up leaving one line alone. One line in the re-write is new, the others have been tweaked, sometimes reversing their meaning. It was a recent poem - I felt no resistance to re-writing, it was a continuation of what I'd stopped doing only a week before.

"Making Poems"

This week I've been reading "Making Poems", edited by Todd Davis and Erin Murphy (State University of New York, 2010) in which poets have a chance to write about the development of one of their poems. I found Shara McCallum's explanation (p.89) the most interesting, bringing up several issues that occurred to me during re-writing

  • The first draft was entitled "The Unreliable Narrator Speaks to her Audience"
  • The second draft, written on the same day (May 5th 2003), had an alternative title of "Penelope Refigured" ("The uncertainty partly reflected my discomfort with the self-consciousness of the first title ... Penelope, a figure of myth I'd long been interested in ... seemed capable of the kind of utterance that comprised the first drafts opening lines ... Formally, the poem began as a single stanza but in the second draft migrated to quatrains, which were present as a unit of sound and rhetoric to my ear even in the first 'block' version"
    Already there are interesting developments - the sentiments have found an embodiment that was waiting to be used. And we have an explanation for the poem's shape
  • "By the time I moved from my journal to the computer (draft three, on May 9), I changed the stanzaic structure again, trimming it to tercets. Playing with stanza lengths has, for the past ten years, been a revision tool to help me refine language. Determining a fixed length is not an arbitrary process but one governed by the dominant stanza length I see emerging as I revise the poem. Working with a defined stanza forces me to make difficult decisions about which images, word, and lines are best for conveying a poem's idea or feeling"
    I like the idea of using stanza lengths as a revision tool - a way to focus on different words, see the poem in a new light. Because revising involves reading the same poem many times, it helps to have a device that stops you becoming over-familiar with the text. She lets the dominant stanza length force regularity on the poem. Why? I'm not sure. She write that "the couplet offers the most space for pauses and reflectivity in a poem, the tercet a bit less, and so on. Because I favor a controlled pacing and tempo, I almost always select a fixed stanza length" so perhaps this poem has an unchanging pace and tempo?
  • "'Penelope' was published in tercets in the Fall 2004 issue of the Antioch Review". Here are the start and the ending.
    I know I am losing you now
    when I need you to hear me the most,
    speaking across this barrier of time.

    Listen, if I am not an ocean,
    I am nothing. If I am not a world
    unto myself, I have to know it.

    Lemon rinds in the dried brook-bed,
    fireflies in the face of uncertain evil -
    Nothing left
    but me scratching out these words,
    waiting for you message in return.
  • A poem's publication often ends its development, but not this time. "When I began putting together my third book, weaknesses in the writing became glaring to me ... [the poem] underwent another ten or so drafts over the course of the next two years. .... In November 2004, it became 'Dear Country' ... The title change, I hoped, would make it possible for the poem to 'fit' into that sequence ... By late 2005, I dropped that idea and went back to 'Penelope' ... I began to be ruthless with the poem, cutting any line or stanza that seemed weak or disconnected in the least. Stanzas one, four, five, and seven [the last] went onto the chopping block in their entirety ... I was left with a muddle of language that could not be reassembled in the old way ... The poem begins with a series of images, which I think renders it less emphatic in tone at the outset ... Three years after the poem began, on May 23, 2006, it came to rest in its final form.". Here are the start and the ending
    Lemon rinds in the dried brook-bed,
    Fireflies in the face of uncertain evil -

    If I am not an ocean,
    I am nothing.

    If I am not a world unto myself,
    I have to know it.
  • But the story doesn't end there. It eventually appeared as "My Mother as Penelope" in her 2011 book "This Strange Land". In an interview with Geoffrey Philp she says "In my most recent book, personal experiences with mothering and marriage are set against historical narratives and myths. Still, writing autobiography is not what I am after as a poet. The details of my life are important to my poems but must be transformed to serve the poems' ends: they must enact the struggle for self-knowledge that is at the core of poetry. ... When I write, I often find myself grappling with issues of language and identity, as well as the interconnection between the two; but when I think about what I hope most for my poems, it is that they will approach these concerns (and any others) in a manner that is translucent."

The poem's been on a long journey - from a block to couplets; from an anonymous voice through a myth (Penelope) to a particular voice (the mother). The new context has given it extra meanings. The issues of appearance and content interacted as the drafts progressed, though I remain unconvinced that the layout is as beneficial to the reader as it's been to the writer. I think the poem's best lines are mostly those that were in the first draft. In particular the first stanza of the Antioch Review version sounds like a tacked-on intro. Perhaps I should change my older poems too, even if they have been published.

"Poetry as Research"

Also this week I read "Poetry as Research" (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2010) in which David Ian Hanauer reports his finding on the development of poems (which he says confirms other research). He identifies 4 stages -

  • Activation - real world events; generated ideas, sensory images and sound, intertextual influences, poetry writing intention
  • Discovery -
  • Permutation - replacement was preferred followed by deletion and addition which suggests that poets rework within the existing framework.
  • Finalization - decision to view poem as a finished object

The Discovery and Permutation phases cycle around until the poet's satisfied. Nothing very new here, though the nature of the rewrites is interesting. Armstrong ("The Poetic Dimensions of Revision", 1986) reports that expert poets delete more often than they add, and replace more than they delete. Armstrong ("A Process Perspective in Poetic Discourse", 1984) found that experts spend far more time revising than novices do. Also interesting are the decision processes involved at the end, the moment when it becomes a product.

Thursday 9 June 2011

"Short Fiction in Theory and Practice"

Short Fiction in Theory and Practice (Vol 1) has some interesting articles. I'll mention 2 that offer reasons for the devaluing of some genres

In 'Making micro meanings: reading and writing microfiction', Holly Howitt-Dring says that the classifications of poetry, prose poetry and Flash (which she calls microfiction) are blurred, mentioning that Forché's "The Colonel" has been in both Flash-fiction and prose-poem anthologies. But she also thinks that at the core of microfiction is a discernable genre - "Stealing poetic techniques, truncating those of prose, it seems like the offspring of some ill-fated alliance, but in fact microfiction uses the best parts of both genres and is a genre in its own right, as it functions and speaks in a new and different way to both" (p.57). She tries to identify some common features of pieces that are classified as Flash/microfiction. As well as being formatted as prose,

  • "Microfictions usually start in the middle of an action, or, in some cases, a thought.", p.53
  • "Microfiction is often only about a small idea, and the relevance of the miniscule of the major, and focusing on an image, which is, in this case simple, highlights the consequence of the small thing.". p.54
  • "microfictions are ... small, and subtle, epiphanies ... reached not by some narrative trick, but by a realisation that the moment depicted in the microfiction has changed everything, that there has been a shift in what the reader believed or expected, and that this has had significance.", p.54

She writes that the lack of space for prolonged character development has led to the use of the punch-line as a way to make the reader experience the large consequences of small things, but over-dependence on this may devalue the genre. Even reliance on the more subtle ways of hinting at (rather than showing) change may be detrimental to the genre - "Because microfiction could be viewed as stories working solely by implication, I feel that they have been mistrusted and sidelined in literature" (p.56)

I knew that popular magazines used to publish lots of stories (by Conan-Doyle, etc). Sarah Whitehead's 'Reader as consumer: the magazine short story' points out that even Joyce, Borges and Mansfield were published in strange places (Joyce had 3 stories published in a farmer's magazine ("The Irish Homestead"), Borges was in "Playboy", and Katherine Mansfield's stories were published alongside ads for furniture and face treatment). The article suggests that magazines influenced the development of the short story. Here are some quotes

  • "At a time when virtually every piece of short fiction was initially and often only published in a periodical, the short story was just one of the many texts including articles, advertising and illustrations ... tempting both impulse buyers and faithful subscribers who would be lured by fact and fiction through pages of advertisements", p.72
  • "by the 1890s The Strand was selling more than half a million copies a month", p.74
  • "The unprecedented and unrepeated growth of the magazine industry, which underpinned the growth and popularity of the short story genre, was the catalyst, if not the source of twentieth-century critical dismissal of the form.", p.79
  • "The growth of the magazine industry at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century maps the most important chapter in the history of the short story and has directly influenced the nature of the form as it exists today ... The magazine story has imbued the short story genre as a whole with the value of the disposable, the appeal of the marginalized and the inexorable link between literature and consumer culture.", p.82

Thursday 2 June 2011

A short history of UK literary paper magazines

Here's a compendium of articles I've written over the years, reprinted here for historical reasons, and as nostalgia

December 1997

I like the world of literary magazines. I submit and subscribe to many and have access to more at the University Library and local bookshops. In this piece I'd like to cover the progress of these magazines over the last decade, not in a comprehensive way but through my dealings with them, mostly in the form of rejection slips.

My first accepted story appeared during 1986 in Momentum, a small A5 magazine run by Wrexham Writers Workshop that lasted 11 issues or so. Summit by Coventry Writers came and went at about the same time. Such magazines (that begin small but aspire to greater things) no longer exist. On a glossier scale but in the same era was Jennings. Whether they accepted a piece or not the 3 editors cluttered an A4 page with entertaining comments. It paid, as did Dream, an SF magazine that encouraged reader participation. I treasure a readers' voting table from 1987 which puts a story of mine 4th and one of Stephen Baxter (1996 Arthur C. Clarke prize winner) 14th. They've all gone, along with newer publications like Raconteur and the revived Words International, each of which appeared in newsagents/bookshops and lasted about 2 years. Looking back through early contents pages of these defunct prose magazines one sees now familiar names like Sophie Hannah. It's hard to see where budding prose writers can begin nowadays. Perhaps the genre magazines offer a stepping stone. In its time as a quarterly the SF magazine Interzone published Angela Carter as well as many newcomers. Now it's a monthly also available at newsagents with over 110 issues to its credit. It's a quality publication which has taken care to grow slowly while others have grown too quickly and burst. They sometimes sent me 2 page rejections slips.

I started subscribing to Panurge with issue 2. The editors always replied with a comments or two, even when the stories didn't deserve it. Comments like "all the best and stick at it" helped. I finally got published there not long before it folded in 1995. Jon Murray in the final issue wrote "for a 25 hour week rising to 50 hours near publication date, I pay myself a wage of 11 pounds a week." He was getting 4000 submissions a year in the end. Its departure (and that of Metropolitan which ceased publication for similar reasons in 1997 after 10 issues) leaves a gap in the market. Quartos and Acclaim merged into The New Writer. Granta's been closed to newcomers for quite a while. From them I got my most irritating rejection - "in its own right it is very good work, unfortunately it's not right for Granta right now", supporting Jon Murray's view that Bill Buford never accepted anything from the slush pile no matter how excellent his colleagues thought it. Of course, since few prose contributors can appear per issue, it's hard to hold on to subscribing writers. I think a prose magazine needs at least a letters page so that more subscribers can see their names in print. As well as satisfying readers' egos, magazines must satisfy their tastes. Whereas a poetry magazine has a good chance of having something for everyone, a magazine with half a dozen stories might satisfy too few readers. This in part explains why genre magazines like Interzone which cater for narrower audience have a better chance of survival than general fiction publications. Editors of prose magazines have said that distribution via highstreet outlets is difficult, which was why the later issues of Panurge were disguised as books, a trend that other magazines would do well to follow. In January 1998, World Wide Writers appeared, looking much like Raconteur. Its awareness of the WWW might just aid its longevity.

My first poetry acceptance was in Folio International in the late 80's. It was one of several magazines whose demise closely followed my appearance in them. There's quite a rapid turn-around at the lower or more radical end. Even excluding these there are poetry magazines to suit all tastes - the market's glutted. In contrast with the US there are few UK University-based magazines - Cambridge is especially lacking. The austere but worthy Poetry Durham wound up 3 years ago. Oxford Poetry stopped last year, leaving Thumbscrew as Oxford's only poetry magazine. Verse is now US-based but under Robert Crawford was open to all. His "could you send us some more please" made up for many disappointments. Along with the Honest Ulsterman and Rialto it gave one the chance to rub shoulders with big names (I've been with Les Murray and R.S. Thomas). Other Poetry (revived after a few year's rest), Smiths Knoll and Seam are well edited by established poets, showing that new magazines can emerge. Orbis, Envoi (115+ issues), Poetry Nottingham (150+ issues) and Weyfarers (75+ issues) have been going for decades. Weyfarers rotates editorship. The others, for periods at least, have been decisively led. Iota, with nearly 40 issues under its belt, is small but action packed and keeps arriving on time. I suspect that many of its subscribers have appeared in it. This was the approach of Outposts before Roland John took it upmarket so that it looked like Agenda but it seems to have lost its grassroots support. Perhaps that's deserted to the emerging, populist Forward Press titles like Poetry Now and Rhyme Arrival, which are the largest circulation, non-funded poetry magazines in Great Britain. In quality Poetry Review and PN Review lead the field. Competition at this level is intense. Poetry Review get 30,000 poems a year of which they print 120. They seem to reply ever more quickly and decisively to my submissions.

A few poetry magazines (Smiths Knoll for instance) contain nothing but poetry. Others, especially the more frequent ones, have articles, reviews and encourage reader participation through letters. Acumen is like PN Review in this respect but more readable. Some magazines go further still, attempting to cover both poetry and prose. Stand and London Magazine keep going, maintaining high standards on very different budgets. The recently deceased Iron was lively and variagated. The North is too. Both have publishing arms. Staple is still going strong and is perhaps the most under-estimated of the magazines here. I'm surprised that they don't attract bigger names. It prints only poetry and stories. They pay, and they're now producing about a book a year. There are dangers that a magazine becomes too much of a publicity leaflet for the press. I think Staple's free of that but I was worried to read in Gortschacher's book (p. 644) that in a sample of PN Review's he'd read, 39% of the poets had been published by the related Carcanet press.

Editors tend to be mature males - people with time and money. Sometimes their pre-occupations show through in their choices (lots of parents dying, children leaving home, etc). Most of them are poets whose work appears in other magazines. From what I've seen, they are a sincere, committed and enormously dedicated bunch. With annual turnover of subscribers sometimes as high as 40%, the struggle for survival is endless. I feel more sympathetic towards them the more I hear how strange some writers are. One of their motivations is to have a piece accepted in yearly anthologies. Both the various Best Short Stories anthologies and the Forward Book of Poetry perform the role that the US equivalents do, though we have no equivalent of the Pushcart Prizes especially for small press publications. Editors are so often on a hiding to nothing. Misprints are one danger - few magazines send out proofs. One of my poems contained 3 misprints, including a missed "not" in the final statement. Some editors go to the trouble of commenting on rejected poems - a well meaning but dangerous practise since the volume of submissions (there's often well over 50 times more submissions than space) means that editors sometimes miss the obvious. A few editors ask for changes. One editor suggested the removal of 2 verses. I fought him down to one. The poem's better than it was originally.

December 1999

This week I received the latest issue of Staple magazine. Usually it prints poetry and stories, but this was a poetry-only issue, because the editors said that they had to save money and by producing such an issue they could publish as many writers as usual in fewer pages.

Some publishers have tried to encourage short stories. In the last few years, magazines like Panurge, Metropolitan, Word International and Raconteur have come - and gone.

December 2002

Thumbscrew's going, which is a shame. Some other magazines which looked to be folding (London Magazine, Stand) seem to be on the way to recovery. There's a trend amongst the smaller magazines (Other Poetry, Staple) to include more critical material. Envoi has recently invited poets to add a few pages of prose if they want. More magazines have magazine reviews (Poetry Nottingham International, etc). PQR (Poetry Quarterly Review) has comparative studies of magazines (M/F ratios, grant status, page allocation, etc). Magazines are looking smarter - covers are more likely to be glossy and illustrated (e.g Acumen, Iota). Also more magazines are setting up pamphlet publication on the side.

There have been some notable changes of editorship. Poetry Review's longstanding editor Peter Forbes has made way for David Herd and Robert Potts whose first 2 numbers have sought to bring the avant-garde into mainstream view. Poetry Review is by far the highest circulation poetry magazine, so this is a significant move. The smaller Staple, Iota and Orbis have been run for years without a change of editorship until recently. In the case of Iota the magazine has changed beyond recognition. Roy Blackman's death in November 2002 is bound to affect Smiths Knoll.

As a genre, Short Stories is sinking ever further from view. I think London Magazine, Stand, Ambit and Staple are the only magazines with circulations over 300 who accept non-genre unsolicited contributions from anyone - that's maybe 30 published stories a year. MsLexia, QWF and Writing Women accept stories only from females. World Wide Writers is a magazine that publishes competition entries. Interzone is a monthly short-story magazine available in newsagents, but it's Science Fiction only.

March 2007

3 factors are currently affecting UK magazines

  • Postal charges - changes in 2006 have affected non-letter postage
  • Funding Policy - uncertainty continues. In 2007, Arts Council England said that "We have been open with all our regularly funded organisations that it is going to be a difficult spending review and we could be looking at a very difficult settlement", particularly for specialist literary publications like The London Magazine, Acumen, Dreamcatcher, etc. The London Magazine gets more that the others, but it's only about 30k I think, so we're not talking big money.
  • The WWW - competition continues. For speed and production values, paper can't compete with the WWW, and WWW magazines can include audio/video clips too. Most mags have web-pages now. A few (Iota, Magma, and most recently Acumen) are using the WWW as an interactive adjunct to the paper version. The poetry library now have some full-text back-issues of magazines.
How long will paper magazines last? Arts Council England's 2007-2011 vision statement for literature ominously says "While not disregarding the benefits of traditional production and distribution methods, we want to see these presses and magazines take a lead in developing new methods of distribution and explore new uses of technology for both publishing and distribution. We believe that our funded presses would benefit from developing creative clusters."

There's no sign yet of a general decline except with short stories.

When a small-press magazine gets a new editor, the changes are so big that it's as if a new magazine has been launched. 3 stalwarts of the small-press world have recently been revamped

  • Envoi - 50 years old. Poetry Now published by Cinnamon Press, it has a WWW page and allows email submissions
  • Staple - c.20 years old. Poetry and Prose. A new ed has just taken over but hasn't yet produced an issue.
  • Seam - not so old, but has a WWW page now, and has relocated to Cambridge.

Also more magazines (most recently Smiths Knoll) are setting up pamphlet publication on the side.

The Short Story (a campaign site for the genre) currently lists 67 magazines outlets but they include the "TLS", "Your Cat Magazine", "The War Cry", etc. The revived Salt magazine is taking prose though. Prospect accepts previously published authors only. I suggest you try US magazines.

December 2010

I tend to stick to the same stable of magazines, but I thought I'd take a look around this year. What's changed?

  • I have access to the online magazines that the University subscribes to - the full text of hundreds of literary magazines (Poetry, PN Review, etc)
  • My local Borders has closed. They stocked many US and UK literary magazines
  • WWW magazines have improved in quality and status
  • Some magazines have gone. Others (e.g. Iota) have changed beyond recognition.
  • I read that book publishers care less about slush piles nowadays. I don't know whether this means that they take more notice of magazines. Even if they do, I suspect that only a few magazines matter. More likely they're influenced by networking (of which online discussion boards - some associated with magazines - play an increasingly significant role).

What affects my choice of subscriptions?

  • Brand loyalty
  • Chance - I've tried renewing subs to 2 magazine lately but something's got lost in the post, so I might not try again. And chance encounters affect choices - what tipped the balance towards The Dark Horse was Hannah Brooks-Motl's article in the Summer 2008 issue
  • I try to support prose-only magazines - Riptide, short Fiction, etc.
  • I get magazines that supply something I can't get elsewhere
  • I get magazines if it improves my chances of getting acceptances

Beneath it all though lies a feeling that paper magazines are doomed. In the UK the main poetry publishers and major magazines seem less influential now (to me and my peers, I guess I mean). There's more small-press infiltration of prize-lists, and more pamphlets are being published. Perhaps the Web has helped smaller magazines more than large ones - the small mags benefit more from the networking and wider visibility that the web provides. Magazines that I've unjustly neglected in the past are Magma (whose contents I like), and Poetry London (whose poetry I'm rather less sure about). I haven't seen Tears in the Fence for years - it's changed a lot, and is a good read. And Brittle Star has done well lately. Importantly for me, these latter 2 magazines publish short fiction. At the other end of the spectrum there are 2 venerable magazines I've never been in - Poetry Review and PN Review. Though PN Review has a few interesting articles, I have trouble with most of the poetry and some of the chattier essays. I like its reputation more than its contents. But I'll keep posting to Poetry Review every two years or so.

I imagine many of these publications are under pressure. Now that US magazine are often easier to submit to than UK ones I wonder how many UK writers sent their work straight to the States. Besides, for fiction there are hardly any UK markets anyway, and Rialto tells people to expect to wait 6 months for a reply to a submission.

But all is not rosy for US magazines either. I'm told that Story and New American Review have gone, TriQuarterly has become WWW-only and Southern Review is shrinking.

As the water-hole dries up, strangers rub shoulders. On "Poetry Publishing" Amy De'ath suggests that both Carcanet and Salt cut through the mainstream/avant-garde divide, though Carcanet tends to print older, "established" avant-garders. On the more purely innovative side, Shearsman remains impressive and Barque keeps going. Magazines like Tears in the Fence are less mainstream than I'm used to, but not beyond my range. I need new challenges

In consequence of all this I think I'm going to adjust my magazine subscriptions a little, now that I can't buy off the shelf. I'll also send stories to the US rather than the UK, and take WWW magazines more seriously. But I still have trouble evaluating WWW magazines. I'm sending Flash pieces off, but I don't produce many so I don't want to waste them. I know of a few established outlets - Smokelong, etc - but keep finding other possibilities. Even London Magazine's starting to print them. Time to take a few chances I suppose.